Back in 2001, Frank Robinson coined the “Minimum Viable Product,” a term Eric Ries later defined as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” But is the MVP still enough for startup success? Perhaps not.
Our Program Manager Daniel Schröder suggests that instead, startups focus on building Minimal Loveable Products. We asked him for more details.
Daniel, what’s the difference between an MVP and an MLP?
Let’s say I run a bakery. In this example, an MVP would maybe be something like a donut. No bells or whistles, just a plain donut.
Not even with strawberry jam as a filling?
Toppings and fillings would already be something further developed than an MVP, which should teach you something about your customers, but only something very simple. Making and selling plain donuts might answer a question like “do people like donuts?”
But figuring out fillings and what people prefer — do they like strawberry or chocolate filling better? — requires much more effort. It’s about investing the least effort and hitting the market in the fastest possible way.
So what’s an MLP in this example?
A minimum loveable product should be a product you can bring to market in a reasonable amount of time that will create the maximum amount of love from your early customers. It should be a kickass donut, a crazy, cool donut. For me, it would be those Apple Crunch donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts I really love.
In a perfect world, the first ten people who enter your shop should say “Amen, I love this donut!” I think it was Sam Oldman from Y Combinator who said it was better to build something that a few people love over something that a lot of people just like. It’s a very subtle difference. It’s about creating a movement, creating a tribe of early customers that root for you. And that’s maybe the main point. An MVP is about gaining knowledge about your customers, an MLP is about converting customers into brand ambassadors.
Can you give me a real life example of an MLP?
Dropbox! When they first came out, everyone loved the service because they did one thing really well and that was filesharing. I think that they understood that they had something loveable because they had this incentive program and if you told your friends, they gave you more storage, more love. Everything went pretty well for the company from that point on.
Another interesting, somewhat crude example is Post-Its. Because they are so simple, they always work and you can squeeze a lot of innovation onto one small piece of paper. You can stick them everywhere. They’ve helped me a lot in my professional life.
OK, that all makes sense. But cutting to the heart of your argument – what problem do you think a Minimum Viable Product poses that a Minimum Loveable Product solves?
With an MVP, you would start with only the most basic attributes of what you want to build. So you never aim to make a product that’s delightful and surprising, it’s always very straightforward. I suppose the biggest issue is that an MVP has no soul.
When you think about how focused everybody is on building products that are tailored to our customers’ needs and which are customer-centric, how can you ever really create a really happy customer by fulfilling their basic needs and never exceeding them? The MLP takes an entirely different approach to this way of thinking because it also looks at the basics but then it also takes into consideration what drives delight when using the product and that creates even more customer-centricity.
Nowadays, a German investor will often say “What’s your business case?” But a business case is a poisonous phrase. You don’t want to think about how to earn money. You want to create something that’s loveable and life changing, something which drives humanity forward, and if you accomplish all of those things, at least to some degree, monetization will follow.
A lot of startup founders today have the right idea. They say “I’m working on this great project and I think it’s really loveable. If I hit one million users, I’ll charge each of them one euro per year.” That creates one million euros in revenue a year. That’s effectively what Whatsapp did. They didn’t build a MVP, they built a MLP — they built messaging across all platforms that just worked and which was free. They were giving it away, everyone loved it straight away and then after a few years they said OK guys, we have to pay for some hardware, let’s charge one euro per year. Nobody had a problem with paying a tiny amount for a service they loved and all of a sudden they generated millions’ worth of income.
OK, you’ve convinced me and I’m ready to make my millions. Talk us through concrete steps: how do you build an MLP?
Find something you believe in. That would be the first thing. The next step is to find others who also believe in your idea to build a team because doing it alone will be boring. Make sure you build something that matters — find something that’s useful, focus on a problem that needs solving and get others hooked.
How do you make sure it matters, though?
It’s common sense, right? It shouldn’t just be useful for you but for society, too. It should serve a purpose and should serve the greater good. Some entrepreneurs argue in favor of scratching an itch — solving a problem that you also experience yourself. It’s about finding something that you honestly care about and that might be something that others care about in terms of doing something good for the world or it might just be about solving a problem that everyone has.
Got it. But how can you design a product that becomes part of a customer’s daily life?
It’s about creating something that you want to use over and over again because it comes with you taking an action, getting a reward for it and this reward triggering an action. I guess that’s the way to create something habit-forming. If something solves a real and recurring problem and does so really well and rewards you, you’ll do it again. There’s another mechanic which is habit-forming and that’s shaming you into doing something again — the obvious example is the owl on Duolingo pestering you to practice your Spanish irregular verbs because you haven’t opened the app in two days. But I’m not convinced that this is the right approach because this approach triggers you to do something because otherwise you’ll feel bad about it. That’s not the feeling you want your audience to experience, realistically. You want them to feel good about using your product and to continue using it because of that feeling.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Daniel.
Thank you! Maybe one more thing — I just wanted to stress that this idea isn’t rocket science, really. The MLP — as the name suggests — is all about love. Make something people can really love. Make love, not war.